Happy Birthday, Philip Roth

Philip Roth, who surprised so many of us a few weeks ago by announcing that he had written his last novel, turns 80 tomorrow.  As a fan of his writing for more than four decades, I was both shocked and disappointed by his announcement.  He is one of the great ones, and it still feels strange for me not to wonder what is coming next from his pen.

I was reminded of Roth’s milestone birthday this morning when I received an announcement from Library of America that their  final two volumes of Roth’s work are available.  This brings the Roth collection to nine books totaling more than 7,000 pages, and it places the author in remarkable company.  To date, he is the second most published LOA author, trailing only Henry James’s sixteen volumes, and being one ahead of Mark Twain’s eight. 

(If you are unfamiliar with Library of America and its mission, please consider purchasing some of their wonderful books.  LOA is a nonprofit publisher and deserves (and really needs) the support of America’s book lovers.)

The first video (from 2011) shown below is one of the best Philip Roth interviews I have ever seen, and the second, from CNN, captures a bit of the general shock at Roth’s retirement announcement.

 Happy Birthday, Mr. Roth – and thank you.

Happy 200th Birthday to Mr. Dickens

Happy 200th birthday to Charles Dickens. I posted this little BBC biography a couple of years ago and was pleased to see that it is still available.  Take a look… the whole life of Charles Dickens told in just over four minutes.

 I haven’t read any Dickens in several months but this is making me want to pull another one off the shelves.    Enjoy.

Happy Birthday, Rod Serling

I didn’t have time to mention in on Christmas Day, but I do want to mark the birthday of one of the earliest “literary” influences in my life, Rod Serling.  Serling was born on Christmas day, 1924, and died on June 28, 1975, at the age of 50 from complications suffered during the open heart surgery procedure he had undergone just two days earlier.  Most people, especially those my age, will remember Serling as the creator of one of the finest programs ever to grace CBS-TV, The Twilight Zone, but he was also an accomplished short story and screenplay writer.  The series ran for 156 episodes, over 90 of which Serling wrote himself, and his introductions to each of the shows became classic pieces of television history in themselves.

The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons, beginning in 1959, not too long after I turned eleven years old – the perfect age for someone to discover a series like that one.  Suddenly, I found myself paying attention to plot details and characters in a way I hadn’t done before, probably because I was so fascinated by just how much could be packed into a show that lasted only 25 minutes or so.  And, too, I think these shows were my introduction to the concept of the “surprise ending,” still one of my favorite literary devices (I thank Rod Serling for preparing me to be a huge O. Henry fan when I finally stumbled upon that great short story writer a few years later).  Rod Serling is, beyond doubt, one of the main reasons I am such an avid reader today.  He helped make me appreciate the world of stories and books, and I still can’t get enough of either today.

Serling is a member of the Television Hall of Fame and I consider him to be one of the finest science fiction writers that I have ever read.  It is a real shame that the man, a heavy duty chain smoker, died so young from the damage all that smoking did to his heart.  Who knows what else he might have left behind?

Happy 176th, Mr. Twain

Samuel Clemens in all his glory

Happy 176th birthday, Mr. Twain.  As I mentioned on Twitter earlier today, it is very difficult for me to believe that Sam Clemens has been dead for over 101 years now or that he was born so early in the nineteenth century (1835).  Even though the dates make perfect sense when I look at them (after all, Clemens was a Confederate army deserter during the Civil War), his work is still fresh and readable to modern fans of his work.  Too, the man was about my age (63) when my own grandparents were born – meaning that they shared space on this planet for about a dozen years.  Oh, and there is a video of Clemens and his daughters on YouTube, something few Civil War veterans can claim, I suspect.

Mark Twain, as he is best known, is truly one of the finest novelists ever, and most scholars still call him the “greatest American humorist” we have ever seen.  His most influential novel (whether it was his best work might be debated, I suppose), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called one of the most influential of all time.

Twain was not the wisest of personal investors and, in fact, was more likely to lose money than make any from the inventions he backed with his fortune.  However, he was a man with a great deal of compassion.  I was reminded of this by my recent reading of Charles Flood’s new book, Grant’s Final Victory in which Flood details Twain’s critical involvement in the publication of Grant’s memoirs.  Twain’s (as well as Grant’s) main concern in that relationship was to make sure that Mrs. Grant was left with enough money to sustain her standard of living for the rest of her life.  Grant was dying of throat/tongue cancer and had to race the clock to get the work finished before the illness claimed his life.  Twain published the two-volumes himself, making sure to give Grant the most favorable royalty terms ever seen.  At the same time, he took all of the risk and limited his own profits from the deal by granting the Grants such a generous deal.

So, Happy Birthday, Sam…wherever you are.  Your work will live forever, as will your image.  You were a serious novelist when you wanted to be, though always a wit, and you created a personae that many after you have failed miserably in trying to copy for themselves.

For those who have never seen it, here is the video I mentioned.  This was apparently shot in 1909 by Thomas Edison.

Happy Birthday to Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy

It’s time to send out happy birthday wishes to two of my favorite American authors: Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy.  Anne turned 70 yesterday (October 25) and today Pat reaches 66 years of age.  I’ve been reading both authors for much of my adult life, and I’m looking forward to many more good books from each of them.

Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler has written eighteen novels to this point and her nineteenth, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is scheduled for April 2012 (it’s on my ARC wish list, dear Publisher).  A quick look at my bookshelves turned up hardcover editions of fourteen of the novels, in addition to two or three duplicates in different editions.  For multiple reasons, even though I’ve read all eighteen titles, I don’t have personal copies of: The Amateur Marriage, A Patchwork Planet, Digging to America, or Noah’s Compass.  

For those not familiar with Tyler’s work, I suggest starting off with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant from 1982,  That is still one of my favorites.
Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy has only published ten books during his forty-year career, sometimes going six or seven years between books and driving his fans to the point of nerd-hysteria when a new title is finally announced.  There was even a fourteen-year stretch between his last two novels, Beach Music and South of Broad.  Five of the ten books are novels (unless The Boo is counted as a novel and, frankly, I’m still not entirely certain how to classify that one), one is a memoir of his college basketball days, one is a cookbook, one a memoir about his early days as a schoolteacher, and the other is a book about his own favorite books and how he became a reader and a writer.  
Another check of my bookshelves reveals hardcover versions of three of the novels, the basketball book, the book on his reading life, and an ARC of his last novel, South of Broad.  I have, however, read all of Conroy’s books and I’m looking forward to the new memoir about his current relationship with his father and how they reconciled their differences.
Anyone unfamiliar with Conroy’s work, but curious, should start with Prince of Tides, still my favorite of his novels, or maybe with his love letter to books, My Reading Life.
Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy are two of the authors I most admire because I know I can always depend on them to move me as well as entertain me.  They are very special writers and I wish them many more productive birthdays to come.

Happy Birthday to Stephen King and H.G. Wells

Happy Birthdays to authors Stephen King and H.G. Wells who share September 21 as the date of their births.  I think it’s kind of a cool coincidence that these two guys were born on the same day of the year.

Wells was born on September 21, 1866 in Bromley, England, and died on August 13, 1946.

King, who turns 64 today, was born in 1947 in Portland, Maine – just a bit more than one year after Wells’s passing.

Whether King will ever be held in the same esteem as Wells is debatable, but I do think their work (other than King’s pure “horror” output) has a good deal in common, and I get a kick out of the fact they were born on the same day – some 81 years apart.

July Birthdays

Thomas Berger

This afternoon I found myself browsing through the desk calendar I keep in my home office.  That’s not something I do a lot of, despite the fact that I always try to keep a book-oriented desk calendar around – this year it’s the Barnes & Noble 2011 Desk Diary: Book of Days.  Half-way through the year, I can say that this has turned out to be one of my favorites, and that I’ll be looking for the 2012 version for next year’s blog notes, book logs, etc.

What I noticed this afternoon is that the month of July is a pretty awesome month for author births.  Take a look at this list:

July 1, 1892 James M. Cain

July 2, 1877 Herman Hesse

July 3, 1883 Franz Kafka

July 4, 1804 Nathaniel Hawthorne

July 8, 1913 Walter Kerr

July 12, 1933 Donald E. Westlake

July 17, 1889 Erle Stanley Gardner

July 18, 1937 Hunter S. Thompson

July 20, 1924 Thomas Berger

July 21, 1899 Ernest Hemingway

July 23, 1888 Raymond Chandler

July 26, 1856 George Bernard Shaw

Jul7 28, 1927 John Ashbery

July 29, 1905 Stanley Kunitz

Not too shabby a list, that.  July seems to have been particularly kind to mystery writers, including four of the giants of the genre in its ranks: Cain, Westlake, Gardner, and Chandler.  What surprises me most is the year in which those four were born, especially considering how cutting-edge Cain and Chandler seemed to be to me even when I was reading them for the first time in the ’60s.  And who would believe that the man who invented Perry Mason was born all the way back in 1889?  Considering how late into the twentieth century that show was on television, it hardly seems possible.

July also blessed us with one of my favorite writers, Thomas Berger, a writer perhaps still best known for Little Big Man (but my personal favorite of his is one called The Houseguest, a very strange book, indeed).  And who could quarrel with a month that produced Kafka, Hesse, Hemingway, and Shaw?

Confession time: Hunter Thompson bores me to tears, so that’s minus one point for July.  And, quite frankly, I can’t place Kerr, Ashbery, or Kunitz – that’s minus three points for me.  Also, it appears that Barnes & Noble pretty much only note “old school” authors, with very, very few of the featured writers having been born after 1950.  Perhaps, next year, B&N should put out a “modern author” desk diary as an alternative to this one.  (On a side note, I saw that  Beverly Cleary is 95 years old!)

All in all, I suspect that July will be hard to beat as a birthday-month for authors.

Happy Birthday, J.D. Salinger

Cult author J.D. Salinger, had he not died this past January 27, would be 92 years old today.  The reclusive (Salinger’s life define’s the very word) writer is, of course, best known for his cult classic The Catcher in the Rye.  Whether Salinger decided to quit while he was on top or, perhaps, had little else to say, he published very little new material after his tremendous success with Catcher.  


Whichever the case, Salinger disliked the hoopla and attention associated with having written such a big book and even resorted to having his author picture removed from its later editions.  Much like his beloved character Holden Caulfield, Salinger withdrew from the pressures of a “phony” world. Caulfield ended up in a mental asylum and Salinger in a remote section of New Hampshire (where he still lived when he died on January 27, 2010).

Despite being one of the literature world’s one-hit-wonders, Salinger succeeded in creating one of serious literature’s most memorable characters in Holden Caulfield, a young man who became a symbol for disillusioned youth for more than one generation. Even today, The Catcher in the Rye is as often banned in high schools as it is required reading in others, a distinction almost certainly matched by few other books.  That the book can have an impact on young minds is beyond dispute, as evidenced by the fact that John Lennon’s assassin (in 1980), Mark David Chapman, so eerily identified with Caulfield.   Chapman, in fact, did not even try to get away from the murder scene, deciding instead to wait there for authorities while he read from his copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

Personally, I have never quite understood the awe in which J.D. Salinger has been held for so many decades, but the impact of his novel cannot be denied.  It speaks to people of a certain age, and a particular frame-of-mind, in a powerful way.  One does have to wonder if Salinger’s decision to transform himself into a modern hermit had as much to do with his lasting fame as anything else, however.  Had he continued to write and, almost certainly, produce lesser works than Catcher would he be the cult figure he is today?  We will never know, but perhaps now that he is gone, the world will get a look at what he was supposedly writing all those years while living in his self-exile.

Happy Birthday, John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole, if he were alive, would be 73 years old today.  Sadly, Toole chose to take his own life on March 26, 1969, at age 31.

John Kennedy Toole is, of course, best known for the wonderful novel he was unable to get published during his lifetime, A Confederacy of Dunces.  I defy anyone to read Confederacy and then tell me that they will ever forget the book’s main character, Ignatius J. Reilly.  That is not to say that Ignatius is a lovable, or even a likable, character; it is simply to say that he is unforgettable because of his unique approach to life.

Several years after his death, Toole’s mother was able to get novelist Walker Percy to look at A Confederacy of Dunces, and Percy eventually saw that the novel was published.  In 1981, twelve years after his death, John Kennedy Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Note: Readers familiar with Confederacy might also want to find a copy of The Neon Bible, written by Toole at age 16.  This one is no Confederacy, of course, but it is a rather remarkable effort for a 16-year-old high school student.  Toole did not believe that the novel held up very well over the years and considered it to be an “adolescent” effort.  I wish I were capable of something so “adolescent” today.

Happy Birthday, Joan Didion

Joan Didion, born on December 5, 1934, turns 76 years old today.

At the risk of showing my relative unfamiliarity with Ms. Didion’s work, I will admit to having read only three of her books, and that I read two of those something like 20 years ago (Salvador and Miami).  The third is Ms. Didion’s strange, and unexpectedly touching, memoir The Year of Magical Thinking in which she very frankly discusses her mental reaction (breakdown) to losing her 39-year-old daughter and her husband (author John Gregory Dunne) in the same year.  That one will stay with me for a long time.

 Thankfully, Didion is still writing and word is that in 2011 Knopf plans to publish Blue Nights, her memoir about aging.  That promises to be an interesting book.